Motivating the Unmotivated

By Scott Schimmel

Well-meaning adults have infuriated and discouraged the young people in their lives without even realizing it for generations. Mostly out of love and concern, but often because of a deep down fear, adults will peck at their kids, students, nieces, nephews, interns and athletes when they perceive a lack of internal energy, drive, and effort. The pecking triggers big feelings which turn into arguing, and the arguing turns into negative long term consequences. 

Here’s an example of a typical conversation we’re talking about— see if you can relate:

“So how’s it going with your college applications?”, says good-intentioned adult. 

“Fine,” says high school senior.

“Oh really? How many applications have you sent out?”

“Well, I haven’t submitted any of them yet.”

“Which schools are you applying to?”

“I’m still narrowing down my list.”

“Narrowing down your list? Aren’t the applications due next month?” (first hint of frustration)

“Yeah, I think so.”

“You think so? So how are you going to narrow it down?” 

“Well, I don’t know.”

“Which schools have you started the application for so far?”

“Well, I downloaded the application to the UC schools.”

“How far along are you?”

“I haven’t actually started it, yet.”

“Wait- what? Your applications are due next month! Do you even care about going to college? This is really important!”, spoken with high frustration.

“I know it’s really important,” said sharply.

“Do you? Do you know that we’re talking about your future here? You might not get into any school. And then what?”

“I’m going to do my applications- just leave me alone! This is my life, just get off my back!”

You can imagine where this is going. The parent is sincerely worried for the future wellbeing of their kid. The kid is seriously stuck in a cycle of stress, pressure, and fear, and in the face of a monumental decision-making process, gets frozen. This tactic of ‘motivation’ by the parent is going to seriously impact whether or not this application process goes well and will impact their relationship for a long time.

Now, replace college application for any other topic: applying for jobs, picking different friends, cleaning up a bedroom, doing homework, practicing a sport, sending thank you cards out after Christmas, the list goes on and on. 

Most parents that we talk to frankly don’t know how to motivate their kids. At all.

Not unless they wield a heavy stick- loud voices, serious consequences, big displays of anger and frustration. Or dangle an incentive out in front that will reward previously agreed upon behavior. 

Fear can motivate. The carrot and the stick will work, for a time. Sort of. 

What else can you do to solve the motivation problem? We suggest a different approach altogether:

  1. Get clear about what’s going on for you: is it fear? Frustration? Shame? Disappointment? Name and own your feelings, and express them appropriately- with your spouse, a co-worker, in meditation, in a journal. Deal with your feelings (like an adult would), so that you can be clearheaded in conversation.
  2. Don’t ignore the problem as though it might resolve itself. When young people, or any person, is in a season of transition, the stress and pressure can be paralyzing, and they need help
  3. Come alongside the young person with a non-anxious, calm presence. Ask questions that evoke values, dreams, and motivation. Questions like: “What are you hoping for at the end of your applications?” Or, “How do you think you’ll feel when you get accepted to one of your top schools?”
  4. Ask questions about needs— does your young person need direction? They do if they’ve never done successfully done a task before. Giving direction isn’t about telling someone what to do, it’s about inquiring with them if they’d like help in breaking down the steps and making a plan. Or, do they just need support and encouragement?
  5. Ask where you can help, and remind them that you know that it’s their life, not yours. Use words to share that you want the best for them, you are here for them, and you’d like to be helpful.

That’s a start down a different path with different results from your conversations. Ultimately, every parent, teacher or coach wants young people to WANT good things for themselves on their own, without prodding, pecking or pushing. When you don’t perceive that they do, that they aren’t internally motivated for themselves, your approach is going to make all the difference. 

What else have you found to be helpful in inspiring internal motivation? Or unhelpful? Share in the comments below.